Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu Remembers the Fall of Saigon



Nguyen Van Thieu first came the attention of the American public in 1963 as a critical player in a major political melodrama that was about to entangle the United States and all of Indochina in a full-scale war. On November 1, 1963, Col. Thieu commanded the Fifth Infantry Division of South Vietnamese Army. He was selected by General Duong Van Minh -- "Big Minh" -- and a group of high ranking Buddhist military officers plotting a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem to lead his troops in an assault on the Gia Long Palace in Saigon and to seize Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Thieu's selection was politically motivated -- in order to avoid the appearance of a religious schism within the ranks of the military, the Buddhist generals wanted a Catholic military officer -- Thieu -- to beseige and capture the Catholic president and his brother. Thieu's assault on the palace was successful, but Diem and his brother had already fled, through a secret tunnel. They were later captured and murdered by the coup leaders. Thieu was promoted to general and became part of a group of officers called "the Young Turks" who successfully carried out their own coup two years later and seized power in Saigon. General Nguyen Cao Ky became prime minister following the coup and Thieu became chief of state. Two years later national elections were held in South Vietnam and Thieu was elected president, Ky vice president. In 1972 Thieu was reelected but he ran unopposed. Three years later, on April 21, 1975, Thieu resigned from the office of president and was replaced by Tran Van Huong, a school teacher and former mayor of Saigon. Huong served as president for less than one week and was replaced by Duong Van Minh, who served for less than two days in office before surrendering his country, unconditionally, to the North Vietnamese on April 30th.
During his last months in office Thieu became the most hated man in South Vietnam. His military decisions were utterly disastrous and his army fell apart before the advancing divisions of North Vietnam. His suppression of dissident newspaper editors and intellectuals brought him into disrepute at home and abroad. The American Central Intelligence Agency in Vietnam so distrusted Thieu that they placed listening devices in his offices and living quarters in the Independence Palace and then tried, unsuccessfully it turned out, to predict what military and political actions he might take. They also put one of his closest associates on their payroll as an informer. Not only did the CIA learn almost nothing about Thieu through these methods, but Thieu, in retaliation, ordered that all American CIA employees left behind when he pulled his own troops out of the central highlands in mid-March of 1975. Only through the help of a friendly Vietnamese military officer in the outpost of Pleiku did the CIA learn of the withdrawal. An American plane was sent to evacuate the endangered Americans. One of the top South Vietnamese officials dispatched by Thieu to Washington to seek immediate American emergency aid was Dinh Van De. Upon his return to Saigon in April, 1975, De sent a secret message to Hanoi -- "Green Light" -- indicating that he had been successful in making the worst possible case for aid to South Vietnam. De, it turned out, was in fact a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army. General Ky plotted with other military officers to seize the government, arrest and try and, possibly, execute Thieu. Rumors abounded in South Vietnam claiming that Thieu was draining off the nation's gold reserves and placing them in secret Swiss bank accounts. There were even widely circulated stories -- still today given credibility by many Vietnamese -- that Thieu wasn't even Vietnamese -- stories that claimed he was a Cham, the son of his father's maid who was a descendant of the Indian people who had ruled the Kingdom of Champa in Central Vietnam until 1471, when the Vietnamese destroyed their capital of Indrapura and killed 40,000 of its inhabitants. In 1975 many Vietnamese believed that Thieu was really a Cham bringing revenge upon the Vietnamese for the destruction of Champa and that his military decisions were purposely made in order to produce defeat and humiliation for Vietnam. Marines and Rangers who had been sent to guard the ancestral graves of Thieu family near Phan Rang in the central coast of Vietnam, bulldozed the graves into the ground. In his resignation speech on Vietnamese television on April 21, 1975, Thieu blamed the desperate situation in Vietnam on the Americans and absolved himself of any responsibility for the collapse of the Vietnamese Army. He closed his address by saying that he was now at the service of his country as a citizen and a soldier. Three days later he flew to Taiwan. (On April 28th General Ky announced in a speech televised in Saigon that he would never leave Vietnam, that he would stay and fight to the end. On April 30th he flew to the U.S. aircraft carrier Midway along with General Ngo Quang Truong, former commander of Military Region I along the demilitarized zone in the northern part of the country.)
Thieu's exodus was motivated, in part by the American ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin. Martin believed at the time that some sort of negotiated settlement might be arranged with the advancing North Vietnamese Army if Thieu were no longer in the country and that plotting against the government might cease. The plotting did stop but the advancing North Vietnamese Army was unwilling to negotiate with Thieu or without Thieu and six days later they entered Saigon in triumph.
The day before the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, Mrs. Anna Chennault came to Taiwan on private business. She also carried a private message for Thieu from President Gerald Ford. She told Thieu that because of strong anti-war feelings it was not a good time for him to come to the U.S. It would be better if he could go somewhere else to live in exile. Two of his closest friends were approached the same day by American diplomatic personnel in Taipei and told to start distancing themselves from Thieu if they wished to come to America. "It is so easy to be an enemy of the United STates," Thieu told Chennault, "but so difficult to be a friend."
Thieu later flew to London and has lived in England for the past fifteen years. He has not spoken to any western journalist since 1975. Then on Friday, March 23rd, Thieu agreed to meet with Larry Engelmann, who has just completed a book on the fall of South Vietnam, and to discuss his activities since 1975. The meeting, according to Thieu, was to be considered "a friendly conversation between a history professor and a former President." He did not wish to discuss military or political events before 1975 since he "accepts the responsibility for the fall of Vietnam in 1975" and he did not want to "blame the fall of Vietnam on any foreign government or any diplomatic personnel." He preferred, he said, to discuss the situation in Vietnam today and "his plans to rebuild a new democratic, just and progressive nation in Vietnam." Of course, Thieu's wanting to ignore all that happened before 1975 suits his current political interests perfectly. In order for the former president to emerge again as a leader of his people, almost everything that he did in office must be overlooked, forgiven or forgotten. He is willing -- even eager -- to be remembered as the man who lost Vietnam in order to be considered, today, as the man who can win it back from the communists. So far, in his quest for followers and credibility, he has succeeded only in the first part of this endeavor.
Since almost nothing is known in the west about Thieu before 1963, Engelmann asked him to provide some relevant biographical data before our "friendly conversation."

"I was born in 1924 in a village in the Center of Vietnam," he explained, "which is the area between Phan Thiet to Thanh Hoa. I have two sisters and four brothers. I was the seventh and last child in the family.
"I was born near the city of Phan Rang in a very remote village --the village Tri Thuy. And to go from my village to Phan Rang city was six kilometers and we had to cross a lagoon, and we had no bridge so we had to go back and forth on a barge.
"My father had many occupations. He was a sailor like his father and grandfather before him. And like them he went on a junk to sell merchandise from Phan Rang to provinces south of Vung Tau and in the north. He sold fish sauce, Nuoc Mam, and brought back other products.
"After I was born he had another occupation. He went to Qui Nhon and brought back animals, oxen and cows and so on, to sell in Phan Rang, and he went to Saigon and bought and sold merchandise.
"My mother had a very hard life also. You know, in those days in Vietnam most women had a hard life. When women wanted to travel and to sell something they carried the merchandise in baskets of bamboo on the ends of long poles. Every day my mother had to make a ten kilometer trip back and forth between the villages. And all of my sisters and brothers worked very hard.
"I was educated in the elementary school in the village. Every village had lower grades in those days. But when I went to the middle school I had to cross the lagoon two times a day and go to Phan Rang.
"While I was in school I had to help my sisters selling rice cakes and sweet potatoes. Also, every day I went to market for my mother and helped my sisters make money. My two brothers went to school and I stayed home and helped my sister every day, too go to market and to bring goods back and forth. I worked very hard. My mother had a small grocery in the village and I helped my mother in that store too.
"At that time my father and my mother had to raise my two brothers and send them to school in Saigon. My father always tried to give us a good education. He worked very hard, very hard, both my mother and my father and my two sisters to provide money to send my two brothers to primary school and then to high school, and then to send me to school.
"After that I followed my brother. He was given a government job in Hue, the old imperial capital, and I followed my brother because it was a tradition that the oldest children were responsible for the younger children. My brother raised the next younger brother and then he raised me. I had to follow him to Hue. I attended middle school in Hue and then attended high school in Saigon.
"Then in 1945 I had to interrupt my study because in 1945 the Viet Minh took power in Vietnam, and the war was going on between the Japanese and the Americans.
"I remember very clearly at that time, near the end of the war, the Americans bombed my village. On that day I had intended to watch a naval battle in the South China Sea between the Americans and the Japanese near Phan Rang. American planes came to bomb Phan Rang and one time as they approached they dropped the bombs too early and they fell in my village. They killed some people and sank many junks. And that was the first bombing we knew -- by the Americans. Isn't that strange?
"And when the Japanese granted Vietnam it's independence from the French, March 11, 1945, on that day we were celebrating Independence Day and I was in the city of Phan Rang to prepare for the big Independence Day parade. Everyone had come from the country on that day to celebrate. I don't know why they did it, but the Americans decided to bomb at that time. I don't know if they saw Japanese or Vietnamese flags or what, but they decided to bomb Phan Rang for almost no reason. Fifty American planes bombed the city and killed about 500 people and wounded 600. And they almost destroyed the whole city. I escaped just in time on that day. I remember I left the city and went to the house of my friend about one kilometer away from the bombs and the destruction. They bombed in the morning. If they had bombed in the afternoon the casualties would have risen into the thousands, because we planned a parade in the afternoon of many many thousands of people and they would all have been in the streets and hit by the bombs. In the morning, when the Americans struck, we were just preparing for that parade.
"In 1946 I attended the engineering school of the university in Saigon. But then I quit that school and instead attended the merchant marine school and I graduated from the merchant marine school. Then when the first military officers school was opened by the Vietnamese government, I was in the first graduating class of that school."

Were you yourself ever a member of the Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh?

"Yes I was. You could say, in reality, at that time, in 1945, that everyone was a member of the Viet Minh. They took power in early September of 1945, and everyone in the country was with them. So I worked in the village committee and then the district committee. I was elected chief of the village committee and I was elected too an advisorship with the district committee of the Viet Minh. On the village and the district levels I worked in the youth organization -- for about six months -- and then the Viet Minh tried to assassinate me. They considered me an intellectual, myself and my cousin, and they placed our names on a list of individuals to be assassinated. We learned of this and we fled to first to Dalat and then to Saigon. It was at that time I went into the engineering school and then the merchant marine school and then in 1948 I went into the military academy. I graduated as a second lieutenant.
"I went to the province of Ben Tre for three months and I was then selected to go to France for the infantry training to a school very much like America's Fort Benning. I spent one year there and then came back and became platoon leader, then company leader, and then instructor at the Dalat military academy. Then I went to North Vietnam for one year and fought in the Center of Vietnam for one year. I was the first man to embark in Song Cau and recapture Song Cau, south of Qui Nhon, because that zone was under control of the Viet Cong in 1953. I was the first man to recapture the province of Thuan, under the control of the Viet Cong.
"I was in the North in Hung Yen, the first Vietnamized territory by the French Army, they gave that the first military sector, the first command to the Vietnamese, and it was a very difficult province south of Hanoi and I was there for one year, and then I came back to Central Vietnam and I went on to become the superintendent of the military academy at Dalat for four years, and then I came to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for one year. Then I came to Vietnam and I went from command to command and from staff to staff and became regional commander, corps commander, Joint General Staff. I went from command to command and star to star."

Why did you settle in London at the end of the war?
"First, I saw that there was no hope of going back to Vietnam and that the North had won the war and it would be a long time before there were good changes. Everyone who had fled the country had new problems to face, and I had my own problems, too. And I think that in Taiwan, had I stayed, in Taiwan, I could not do much because I had few good friends and co-workers there. But in England, yes. After six years my children came to America for their education and I have followed them. Even though I spend most of the time in America, I go back to London and France and Belgium.
I don't have a British passport, I just have travel documents. I am a man without a country at the moment since I have only travel documents and not a passport."

On the day that you heard that President Duong Van Minh[Big Minh] had surrendered, April 30, 1975, where were you and what did you feel?
"I was in Taipei at the time at the home of my brother. We were surprised. I stayed home on that day. I knew that Big Minh was at the end of his rope then and he was exhausted . Before Big Minh took power he told my generals that if we could not reach a political solution with the North Vietnamese he was going to withdraw to the Delta to fight against them still. He would bring the troops there and consolidate a stronghold. I believed him at that time. Even if he did not accept a Battle of Saigon and make it like Stalingrad, still I did not think he was the kind of man who would surrender completely. The minimum he could do, not by himself but the help of other generals was to create a stronghold in the Delta. That was a very feasible undertaking. The war was not lost yet. We still had on the 30th of April, we still had enough troops to make a stronghold in the Delta, or to launch a battle of Saigon. Now if we did not want to accept that battle and make it like Berlin or like Stalingrad. If we wanted to save lives and to save soldiers, they could have organized a stronghold in the Delta very easily.
"But they chose not to do that. I was not surprised because of this action by Minh, to tell you the truth. I know Big Minh. He is a very indecisive man. But I think that every Vietnamese may have thought that he had some promises from the Americans or the French to have a political solution to the war.
"Before I left the country they told me that the communists said that there would be no peace with President Thieu. And they told me that again and again.
"No business with that President, they said. As long as Thieu remains president there will be no peace. We will never negotiate with the Thieu, they said. I saw a long time earlier that this was one of the communists tricks. They jumped from trick to trick and tried to trick foreign governments in that way. But I had to resign. I had to prove that I was not trying to hang on to the presidential chair and then people would say that because of me and my stubbornness there could not be a negotiated peace agreement. And the last day I was in Saigon, everyone said that they had the Thieu government without THieu. So I thought that with no role to play it was good to let everyone have a free hand, especially President Tran Van Huong, without my influence. So I volunteered, I told President Huong that when the situation could be resolved smoothly I would come back. I told Huong like this(winking), "I will come back." Because even President Huong at that time hoped that the Americans would do something to put pressure on the Communists, through Russia or through Hanoi, so that they would have to accept a peace agreement without my presence. Nobody called me to ask me to leave. I made that decision myself. I knew that if I did not resign in time then there could have been a coup d'etat by the military, to arrange for another government to arrange for a political solution."

What was it like leaving? Did you think this was the last time you would see Vietnam?
"No I didn't think this was the last time I would be leaving Vietnam, I thought it was a temporary leave taking. I was very calm and I knew what I had to do, what I must do.
"But leaving Saigon was at the same time, very sad. How could it not be sad? I was responsible for losing the country. And in a way I am fully responsible for the loss of the country. But I tried to maintain my courage and sadness has nothing to do with courage.
"I left after offering my services to the country. I thought that I could stay and serve President Huong in some way, as a soldier or adviser. But two days later I saw that this was not the situation it would be and I thought I should let him be free to negotiate however he wanted. My presence there was not good for President Huong. So I had to leave."

Did you have a plan after 1975? From Taiwan looking to the future what did you expect to happen?

"I stayed there three months, then I went to London because my son worked there. From 1975 until 1980, I just thought and reflected and watched. I just listened to others and thought, in order to learn what had really happened in Vietnam. I followed the movement of the refugees and tried to decide what we could do with them. I concluded at the time that it would be very difficult to recapture Vietnam quickly.
"But I concluded that some day we could do something, for sure, through the underground in Vietnam and politically throughout the world. I believe that the Vietnamese overseas will have to support the Vietnamese inside Vietnam in order for a liberation movement to succeed. They must work together to build a popular infrastructure, an underground, that will one day bring back democracy to Vietnam. But I realized after 1975 that it would take a long long time. It would not be very easy I knew because I know the communists, I know how strong they are, what their capabilities are. Right after the end of the war, some of my military friends and some politicians began to think and plan for a guerilla movement and an underground political infrastructure, knowing that only in that way can we do something later. But I don't know how many years later.

Do you expect to return to Vietnam in your own lifetime?

"Oh, yes, for sure. I expect that the communists will lose Vietnam. Building a guerilla movement against them is a difficult thing, but not an impossible one. And time is on our side now. We believe that soon we can do battle with them, that we can create an opposition to the Communists because we know now how they organized against us in the first steps of their war to seize power. They made the first steps of the war against us in a certain way and now we are doing the same to them. The most important weapon that we have to use against them now is the people, the Vietnamese people. That is why we have a strong belief that we will win because they have turned the people of Vietnam against themselves. Now the people are with us. We believe we can do something soon because we are stronger every day, and every day more people are against the communists.

What do you know about a mysterious internal opposition group called the Club of Former Liberation Fighters in Vietnam?
"I don't know who they support. I have read all the documents that they have published, even the three newspapers that they published two years ago and that were then closed by the Hanoi government. I read their newest declarations. But they have not stated very clearly whether or not they want to overthrow the communist government. They call upon the communist government to make more reforms, and to give more privileges to the former combatants, but they have not stated clearly what they want. Maybe it is too soon for them to do that."

Is there contact between the Club of Former Liberation Fighters and individuals outside Vietnam?
"Yes. Not between my organization and them, but they have many representatives in Paris. And recently that organization published two declarations asking for the same thing that we ask for -- political reforms, to terminate the dictatorship of the communist party and to have other democratic reforms that they have asked for. So although we are not in direct contact, we appear to be working for exactly the same thing in Vietnam."

Do you see any parallels between what happened in Eastern Europe in the past year and what could happen in Vietnam?
"Yes. And it will happen. I am quite sure that it will happen some day in Vietnam, too. I am not in the habit of giving a very precise date about the collapse of communism in Vietnam, but when we look at the situation in Vietnam today and at the problems of the country and the increasing discontent of the people and the appearance and growth of the various resistance movements and the economic and social and political situation, I think maybe this year or next year the Hanoi government will be forced to make concessions and to institute basic reforms in order just to prevent the people from rising up to overthrow them. I am quite certain if they do not change their course there will be a popular uprising. If they do not do that the situation in Vietnam will look like Romania or East Germany or Hungary. Or maybe like Tiananmen, but I hope not. I have a suspicion that it will be like Romania. The dictators will fall. You see, I know the Vietnamese communists well. They are very stubborn and they do not like to let go of any power. But the people will force them to. I have a feeling of certitude that Vietnam's future will unfold soon just as Romania did."

Do you foresee a divided Vietnam again, with the South having more freedom and more free enterprise than the North, a situation not unlike that in China's prosperous southern Guangdong Province? Or do you see special free enterprise zones set up for foreign investment and experiments with more political freedom?

"You must remember that no Vietnamese ever intended to have a partition of our country. But it became an unfortunate realistic fact. The same imperative situation operates now. If the communists continue the economic changes and if they are very timid, then inevitably South Vietnam will be much economically developed than the North. The reason for that is simple. The people of the south are more familiar with economic development and investment and a free market economy. The people of the north, on the other hand, have lived almost a half century under communism and they don't know what democracy is or how it works. They only know that they don't like what they have now. They need to learn about economic development and investment and a free market place. They lack experience. They have no know how. So now if they call for a market economy or political democracy or free enterprise, they don't have any idea of where to start or what to do. They will make many mistakes. Meanwhile the people of the South know what do and they move very fast and they work very hard. The people of the South have always been very enterprising and hard working. And so realistically speaking, as soon as the communists let go of a little economic power, the South will develop very very fast, even under a declining and dying communist regime. Foreign investors are aware of this fact, also. And that is why, I think that most foreign investment will come to the South. because they have ore people there who understand how to develop and manage the economy.
The Hanoi government would like the investment in the North, they would like a balance. But others will refuse to invest in the North, as they prefer to invest in West Germany rather than East Germany."

What should be the policy of the US Government toward the Hanoi regime? Should the United States expend recognition to Hanoi now or in June or by the end of the year?

"I really don't believe the American government will recognize the Hanoi government for nothing. It will present certain demands to them, it must be a quid pro quo agreement. The US should not underwrite a dictatorship, and so if the US gives them aid for economic development, certainly the aid and development must be linked to freedom and to democratic reforms. It must be. If not the government here and the investors will lose money. The reason for that is because if people have no democracy or freedom they will have no enthusiasm or initiative to develop the country or work for the country. And it is also important that if they maintain the dictatorship of the Communist party in Vietnam, the way it is now, then the people who came here will certainly never go back there to help them strengthen a dictatorship."

Do you think the USA is about to recognize Vietnam? President Bush secretly sent his son to Vietnam two weeks ago for talks and a delegation from Hanoi was in San Jose investigating adoption procedures for Amerasian children. Some people say these two developments represent the final informal stages of talks before formal recognition.

"We know these things, of course. But I think the United States will in the end act intelligently and morally. I think the Hanoi government is a dictatorship, and the US should certainly not recognize the government is such a way as to help the dictatorship more effectively strangle the common people of Vietnam."

What should the overseas Vietnamese be doing at this time about the situation in Vietnam? Is there anything they can do?

"They should watch for a movement of freedom and democratization in Vietnam. And I think that more than one million overseas Vietnamese can give those who fight for democracy and reform in Vietnam moral support, and psychological support and financial support. This must be done so that when the Vietnamese in Vietnam finally launch their own liberation movement we can support them. So was must work on the moral, financial and psychological level in preparation for change. Here we can use all of our influence with the press, with the friendly people to give support to them, morally, psychologically and financially."

Do you actually foresee an uprising in Vietnam against the government?

"Yes, I think they are waiting until the time is right, they will wait until they are sure that they will receive support from outside. Then they will rise up and throw off their dictatorship. But without support from outside they can do nothing. Now I am not speaking in terms of weapons or of military support. Not at all. I am speaking in terms of finance and diplomacy."

On the other hand, might there be a peaceful transition?

"It depends. I know the communists of Vietnam and I know how they work. They are very stubborn. But if they can be convinced that they must give up the old ways and overthrow the old leadership and make concessions, and go in the way of democracy and freedom, then I think that the problem will be less serious and there will be less likelihood of bloodshed. But if the Old Guard in the Communist Party continue to be stubborn, as they have been in the past, then they will be swept aside by the people rising up. If the Conservatives continue on the old path then there will be fighting between the people and the party."

What about the boat people? What is the short run solution to that?
"The boat people certainly need the support of foreign governments. We Vietnamese overseas have little means of helping them or to supporting them. The short range solution is to arrange for them to have temporary asylum in Southeast Asia and then to await settlement in other countries. I am against sending them back to Vietnam. We can never believe the Vietnamese government when they say there will be no retaliation or revenge against the boat people who are returned. We know they will punish them in one way or another. And Americans and the world should know too that there is no effort to stop the boat people from leaving Vietnam because the government makes a lot of money on the boat people. They make money on every aspect of the boat people, from foreign governments paying them to take boat people back, by selling them exit permits, by giving favors in the Orderly Departure Program, by bribery of public officials. People want to get out of the country and to escape from communism and the communists know this and make as much money as they can from it. Getting money from the boat people has become a big industry for the Communists. The reality is that they would like to get more money all the time, to bribe the west or to get bigger bribes from the people leaving and from the countries who want to force the boat people back. The communists are as bad as the Thai pirates when it comes to exploiting the boat people, believe me."

Isn't there compassion exhaustion in the west now after 15 years of exodus from Vietnam? Isn't public opinion turning against the boat people? What can be done about that?

"Certainly, public opinion is changing. There is less compassion in the west now. That is a problem. No country likes a large influx of Vietnamese boat people. But what is to be done? Why are there boat people anyway? If you want to solve that problem you must help us to solve our big national problem. If we have freedom and democracy and a prosperous country then nobody will leave Vietnam and there will be no boat people problem. Even me, myself, when Vietnam is again free I will go back to Vietnam. Nobody likes to stay in the camps in Indochina, in those internment camps. But people prefer them to life under the communists in Vietnam. The whole problem is very simple -- as long as we have no freedom and democracy, we will always have people who want freedom and democracy and who dream of it for themselves and their children. And so there will be boat people."

Do you see any timetable of change for Vietnam?

"No. But I am very confident that the situation will change within two years time. I don't know how. But the situation in Vietnam will be a mix of the experience of many other countries, of East Germany, of Romania, of Nicaragua and so on because it is a very complex problem. We all know the problems between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese. When the Northerners rise up and vote against the government, that will be a problem between them and their own government. In the South the problem is really one is between southerners and an occupying force of officials from the North. If we could go smoothly into an election, you know, with local people running for local offices, and if the communists let go a little bit, then violence might be avoided. Then the problem is how to beat the communists by elections. Nicaragua is the pattern here. It depends on the situation there and how it develops in the next months in Vietnam. After that, the problem is one of elections between the remainder of the communists and the nationalists. But it is a very difficult problem."

Many of the Vietnamese have been born in America and grown up in America. They are now Americans. Do you expect they will ever return to Vietnam as anything other than tourists?

"Oh, yes, many of them will. They will, you may rest assured, they will go back to their mother country. There is a responsibility that we have, my generation and the younger generation to go back to rebuild our country. We have the experience of fifteen years of education in democratic western countries. We can use what we have learned to reform our own country now. Those who have remained in Vietnam and who have suffered under the communists see that the communists have no answers to their problems. Now those of us who have lived abroad have to fill the gap and take back our talents to Vietnam. If we don't go back the country will not be able to move ahead economically very quickly. We are needed and we will respond to the need."

What do you tell your children and grandchildren about how they came to be expatriates living away from Vietnam?

"I tell them very simply and realistically that we fought against communists. We lost the war. We are now refugees. Someday we will go home when we recapture our country. That is what we say. That is all we say. It is that simple."

How do you explain that they should prepare for going back?

"We have to maintain our patriotism, and let them realize what precious opportunities they have now but also to make sure that they do not forget their country. They must remember the history of Vietnam, the culture of Vietnam, they must maintain the image of Vietnam as it was and as it could be and as it one day will be. I have a son of 14 years of age, and I tell him how I came here, what Vietnam was like, how we lost the war, how we will one day return to Vietnam. He asks many questions, to be sure, and I have to explain. But like all young Vietnamese living in exile he must see that some day the native country will need him and then all of the Vietnamese living abroad must go home to help as engineers or doctors or teachers. And when their country calls they will go return to their country."

You are not a bitter man, are you?

"Bitter against whom? I have accepted the fate of my country. Personally, I have never lost hope in my life. I have had a very hard life, and my family has had a verify hard life, but all of use rose in the world through self help. Those who rise through their own efforts seldom give up hope. So self help made people never lose hope. I am very confident as to what we can do. That is very important, and that is what I tell me countrymen throughout the world. We must not give up hope. Never. We must prepare to return, and that is very important. We must do something and we must ask others to help us and we must ask God to help us at last, too.
But if we do nothing, nobody will help us.

Do you have access to political leaders of other countries who are helpful to you?

"In the past fifteen years I have had no contact with any government officials from any other countries. I have only worked with my own countrymen. This is my choice. When the time comes and we are ready inside and outside to do something, then we will knock on the door of the American government and the governments of other free countries to ask your support. Believe me we cannot do anything without the support of free governments throughout the world. Friendly countries and peoples. Even if we could make an uprising to use our blood and our lives to overthrow the communists, we still need the free countries of the world to help us.
You know Vietnam today is just like a battery that has no more power. It has run down. When we return to Vietnam there will be, I am sure, not one dollar in the treasury. We have to remake everything in Vietnam, education, society, the economy, bit by bit, and we will need help from many people. For example, there are many diseases in Vietnam today and we will need medical help. Many diseases. And you know about 6 million children in my country from 6 to 15 years of age suffer from malnutrition, and girls of about 17 looks like they are 13 and boys of 15 look like they are 12. Many adults of tuberculosis. They have everything -- AIDS -- everything, all sorts of problems. Prostitution is prospering in the country is, too. The communist government said it had a policy to eradicate it but it is there and is one of the few vocations that is prospering."

Why have you never written your autobiography? Many of those around you did.

"It is not time yet. I am very dedicated to following the situation now and to planning for the future. Many people know about the Vietnamese problems. A book is for history and would not help anything now. The problems that are important are the problems now, problems dealing with how to reconstruct Vietnam.
I never planned to write a book, never thought about it. Many of my American friends proposed that I do it, but I say flatly that there is no time for it yet.
Frankly, I don't care about it. In the work I am pushing now, reconstruction of Vietnam, I am completely involved. If I died suddenly this year or next year, it would make no difference whether I wrote my memoirs or not. Many other people are writing. And we, the Vietnamese, know what the truth is. Some truths will take 50 years to be revealed. Even if I wrote a book now I could not tell all of the truth because I myself don't know the whole truth of much of what happened in Vietnam. Even I have a limited vision of what happened in Vietnam. Those who write history build on other histories and so the truth is slowly emerging."

Have any old friends called on you since the end of the war?

"When I was in London, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and his wife visited me and General Westmoreland and his wife. William Colby called on me. I met with them and we talked and they remained friends. Not officially did I talk to them, but as special friends. I don't want to raise any problems for them."

by Larry Engelmann
April 9, 1990